UPDATE: Wake County, including the capital city of Raleigh, will end its indoor mask mandate starting Feb. 25. That announcement came on Friday afternoon, February 18, 2022

The Wake County Public School System announced in a letter to parents on its website Friday, Feb. 18, that masks will become optional in their schools “in the coming days,” while Lee and Wayne County school boards voted to immediately lift mask mandates.

School officials say their decisions were based on the latest announcement from the state Department of Health and Human Services and Gov. Roy Cooper. 

On Thursday, Feb. 17, Cooper called for an end to local mask mandates for schools and local governments, though state lawmakers seemingly forced his hand. 

Cooper, a Democrat, cited declining COVID-19 cases, vaccines, and boosters, expanded testing, available PPE, and treatments. Kody Kinsley, state health secretary, echoed Cooper’s comments in the news conference Thursday. If trends continue to improve, starting March 7 schools and other low-risk settings can consider moving to voluntary masking at the discretion of local authorities. 

Children and staff in the Wake County School System have been wearing masks since March 2020. 

Amy Marshall, who heads the Carolina Teachers Alliance, sent a letter Thursday on behalf of the alliance school staff and parent affiliate membership to Wake County schools Superintendent Cathy Moore and system board members, urging them to lift the mask mandate immediately. She said there’s no reason to wait, as both the N.C. House and Senate passed Senate Bill 173, Free the Smiles Act, with a veto-proof majority.

“The legislature revealed the will of the people on the school mask mandate issue,” she said. 

In the letter, Marshall urges the school board to meet before Tuesday, Feb. 22, so they could make that the effective date; children and teachers return to class that day after the President’s Day weekend. 

If you drag this out, you will cause further disruptions and more learning loss,” Marshall added. “Putting out a ‘teaser’ the way you did will place an undue burden on WCPSS staff members, as they try to enforce your continued mask mandate.”  

A rally was held earlier this week by CTA, the American Teachers Alliance, Open-NC-US, and Wake County’s Moms for Liberty to end the mask mandate in Wake County Schools. 

Lee and Wayne County schools joined the list of mask optional schools this week, as both school boards voted in favor of making them optional beginning Feb. 21. Chatham, Cumberland, Johnston, Moore, Henderson, Davidson, Union, Sampson counties already moved to mask-optional policies, with Edgecombe, Northampton, and Franklin counties scheduled to consider mask optional policies later this month. 

Pushback from parents, teachers, and other community members has caused legislators and governors to take a step back and revisit the guidance on mask mandates for children. Critics say wearing masks not only hurts children’s learning abilities but also affects them socially and mentally. 

Cooper’s and Kinsley’s actions came after the House Committee on Education announced a hearing on the Free the Smiles Act. The House ultimately passed the measure, 76-42. The Senate passed it 29-17, on Thursday afternoon. 

The act gives parents the right to have their children opt out of wearing masks in school. 

“I am glad the governor is coming to our position on this,” House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, told lawmakers, referencing letters sent to Cooper. “These decisions should be based on science, but not political science.” 

Cooper said he had concerns about the legislation, and that it was unwise and irresponsible to give North Carolinians the right to decide.   

“Are we going to let people pick and choose which public health rules they are going to follow?” Cooper asked members of the media in the Thursday press conference.